The Museum of Broken Relationships in the Croatian capital of Zagreb may be the world capital of broken hearts.
The building, an 18th century Baroque palace, stores 3,132 objects and the stories behind them, the detritus of doomed romance. This flotsam of jilted lovers includes such novelties as a feather-filled quilt that once warmed a couple’s bed and belly button lint once stuck on the sweaty body of a lover.
Not all of the broken relationships were amorous. One donor left a pair of toy frogs with the message: “Mom left me when I was 3. This is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me.”
I visited the museum last fall as COVID-19 raged around the world. Passing the displays, I wondered what story I would tell, what memento I would bequeath. And I wondered what souvenirs and stories the museum has received from people whose relationships cracked during the strain of the pandemic.
An inquisitive reporter from Ross Township, I asked the museum to search its archives and check for COVID-related heartbreak. The staff sent these anonymous stories, never before seen in Zagreb or in traveling exhibitions. I edited them only for space and clarity.
White summer dress worn for his last day in the military
July 2016 – December 2019
We were on vacation in Barcelona – a tall, handsome and serious Estonian man and a chatty, open and uninhibited American. We had the same bunk bed at the hostel, and all felt like a perfect, Hollywood meet-cute.
Our relationship took off very quickly. We traveled all the time and met each other’s families. He had a way of making me feel like we’d last forever. When I asked if he missed his home in Estonia, he replied, “If home is where the heart is, you are my home,” then held me tight.
He seemed sad when he boarded the plane that would take him to his compulsory military service two years after we’d been inseparable. He’d write me the sweetest things while he was in the military, telling me he couldn’t wait to take the next step in our relationship.
I was overjoyed. I bought this white summer dress to pick him up from the military base on his last day. I got out of the car and ran straight into his arms. We traveled all around Portugal and Spain in my shiny white dress.
In the following months after his discharge, I was ready to “take the next step in our relationship.” Instead, one day after returning from buying our Christmas decorations, he said: “I can’t do this anymore.”
It took me a moment to catch on that he wasn’t talking about the Christmas lights. With no explanation, he packed all his belongings from the apartment I tried so hard to make a home for his return.
I begged him to stay so we could figure this out.
But exactly four days after the break up, he flew out and left me in a cold, dark winter in Iceland. COVID hit the moment we broke up. I had just gotten a new job at a busy hospital.
Moving on from this dark period in my life took every ounce of faith. Three months after our breakup, I messaged him to tell him I needed him. When he didn’t answer, I looked him up on social media only to find out he had already moved on with someone else.
While he was safe in someone else’s arms, I was a nurse in a busy COVID unit, and eventually it caught up to me. I almost died one day as I fell to my knees desperately trying to breathe and gasping for air. I had quite literally reached the bottom.
When I miraculously woke up the next morning from being passed out on the hardwood floor, I realized there was only up from here. The year 2020 was all about recovery and rediscovering myself.
I gave myself plenty of time to mourn our relationship and space to heal. And now, a year and a half later, I’ve fully recovered from COVID and started traveling again.
I’m so ready to part with this white summer dress. I won’t be wearing it ever again.
Bottle drip catcher
September 2018 – February 2020
Brussels, Belgium and Zagreb, Croatia
On our first date, we visited this museum. Then for 16 months, 1,000 kilometers separated us. There were sweet, passionate and difficult moments. Endless waits, terribly short weekends and goodbye hugs long as nights.
The first cracks began to appear before she finally moved. Things got irremediably worse, with unpacked suitcases, tears and us hanging by a thin thread when a pandemic struck.
I bought this bottle drip catcher to celebrate the first dinner at, finally, our place. Now she has a new home, and 4 kilometers separate us. But we are more distant than when we had to fly over half of Europe just to hug each other.
Two customized shirts and two bracelets
We met in Germany, then I went back to Mexico and he, to Finland. We kept a long-distance relationship for almost three years, never knowing when we would meet again. But every time we met was a holiday. We discovered many countries together, had amazing trips, pictures, but also enormous fights.
We never spoke the same language. There were misunderstandings from the beginning. However, we survived distance and moved together in Vienna where we were also studying. We almost survived the pandemic and even a terrorist attack. But in the end, he was done. I was done. I guess he was never mine.
We really tried to make it work and prove that two people from such different backgrounds, completely opposite cultures, could be together and overcome distance, and we did for a while. But in the end, the issue was the lack of distance and our different mentalities.
We visited this museum in 2018, and I told him that if we ever broke up, I would send our shirts, so here they are as a memory of almost four amazing years with ups and downs and an “endless love” that vanished on our last anniversary.
Unopened birthday present
January 2021 – August 2021
We met during the pandemic and were able to ease those hard times for each other. I remember the long talks we had over Skype when I was quarantined and how it felt like getting closer to you was all that was on my mind. As things began opening up again, our schedules became so overwhelming that our relationship quickly turned into a side story of our lives.
We planned this trip where I would go south in my campervan and after a few weeks you would join me for the way back. Since we would be traveling on your birthday, I bought this present before leaving Germany. It came with me all the way to Montenegro.
After we broke up two days before your flight would have left, I had to look at it every day and imagine how nice it would’ve been waking up next to you in this car I am sleeping in.
Canadian teddy bear and Dunlop guitar pick
October 2013 – January 2016
Birmingham and London, United Kingdom
We met on Tinder. I was 23, had recently graduated and was working as an intern in a big bank. He was 31 and had a swanky job in another city not far away. We had fun together, understood each other and grew close very quickly.
I am now the same age he was when we met, and many things have started to make sense. I was never good enough for him, especially not for his mother.
When I moved to London for a new job and he moved to Dubai, it ended just as abruptly as it had started. He simply ghosted me.
In early 2021, he contacted me out of the blue. He wrote that he had been in the intensive care unit with COVID, so sick that he thought he wouldn’t make it. He thought of all the people he had wronged, and I was one of them. He asked me to forgive him, and even though I knew full well he asked for his own selfish reasons, just to make himself feel better, I forgave him and finally moved on.
It is now time to leave the most personal reminders of him. He gave me the guitar pick so “he’d always be with me” and the bear so “I’d never be lonely.” I’m neither lonely nor do I need him to be with me anymore.
Bracelet, my 18th birthday present
May 21, 2012 – November 16, 2018
We grew together, and I thought we would continue doing so, but when he decided not to follow me overseas, we slowly lost interest and broke it on equal terms. So I thought.
Apparently, he already had feelings for someone else, his best friend, who was also in a six-year relationship. I found months later they were dating right after we broke up. It tore me apart and then came hypomania.
Two years and a pandemic later, I stand with even more heartbreaks and find it so hard to hope again, but I promise myself I will. Because I am stubborn and fuck him, that’s why.
We are two women who fell in love in Belgium in the first corona lockdown.
My girlfriend never loved a woman before and was very scared. She is afraid of how people in Split, Croatia, judge. Although she lived in Belgium for a long time, she can’t come out. And when she went home to Split, I went to be with her.
After four months, I had to leave for Belgium… To be hidden, to be suppressed, was creating fights, and our love can’t be seen in her family. She is my sweet angel, my everything, but I have to let her go for now.
She gave me a pair of pants for the cold. I’m going home for now, but actually she is my home. Now it’s broken. She doesn’t want pressure, but I want our love to be real, not hidden. Everybody sees it. It’s ridiculous to hide.
To all people in Croatia, please support people who live like this. The mentality should change, especially in Dalmatia. But anywhere in the world, love should rule.
Soul-love has nothing to do with gender. The body finds a way. Touch is just loving. It’s a pity gays or bisexual people can’t just walk freely in Croatia. Nobody should judge. I think we are broken, but I leave the pants to free any dominance, and I hope all will change and we will be free.
A chance for reflection
These couples, of course, may have split without the pandemic. Charlotte Fuentes, collection manager of the museum, said coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns gave people a chance to reflect.
“Some of us really appreciated that extra time spent with their families, lovers, and friends,” she said in an email. “Some of us felt trapped in their flats and felt the urge to end their relationships. Some of us suffered from the distance and lack of contact, especially physical contact.”
Perhaps, Fuentes said, COVID-19 made it easier for some to make decisions about their relationships, “pushed by this pandemic fear of no tomorrow.”
The relationships of two persons close to me snapped during the pandemic. On the other hand, a month before the lockdown, my son Jeff met a woman through their hair stylist. For two years, they dated. Next year, he and Cara will get married.
It can cut both ways.
The emotional testimonies shared by people around the globe made an impression on me and has me wondering what kind of love and loss stories are in the Pittsburgh area. If your relationship — no matter what kind — wilted during the pandemic, feel free to write about it. PublicSource may publish it, but not without your permission.
Remember, you are not alone.
Your turn: Share your stories of love and loss amid COVID-19 in the Pittsburgh region.
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